30 Oct 2019

Indonesia’s sustainable candlenut farms: lighting the candle of innovation

Mbeliling forest in Flores, Indonesia is home to a wealth of wildlife including the Komodo Dragon. Our ‘mbelievable’ investment in micro-finance, community ownership and agroforestry is ensuring this unique landscape keeps blooming in the future.

Flores Island, Indonesia © Toni Wöhrl
Flores Island, Indonesia © Toni Wöhrl
By Adi Widyanto

This project is part of our Forest Landscape Sustainability Accelerator initiative


As well as being the only place other than Komodo National Park where you can find the infamous Komodo Dragon, Indonesia’s Flores Island is also famed (and named) for its flowers. And there is one flowering tree whose nuts are attracting growing interest from conservationists and community groups: the candlenut. This large, white nut is famed for its oil, which can be burned for light, but is also common in Southeast Asian cuisine – making it a valuable crop.

The Mbeliling landscape stretches across nearly 94,000 hectares in the West Manggarai district. As well as hosting a wealth of wildlife, including 171 bird species, the forest is also a crucial watershed, providing clean water for agriculture, villages and towns. Its rich agricultural landscape supports the livelihoods of approximately 30,000 people across 27 villages, who make their living from agroforestry, rice crops and animal husbandry. Commodities produced by the agroforests include candlenuts, coffee, cocoa, cloves and cashew nuts.

Sustainable agroforestry can be an excellent way to make sure that local people do not need to clear pristine natural forest to earn a living. If they earn enough from the crops they grow, they need not resort to hunting or logging to feed their families. Furthermore, growing different crops together, interspersed with trees, keeps the soil healthy and provides habitat for wild animals, especially birds. This technique also serves a greater purpose – tree roots bind the soil together and prevent natural disasters such as landslides, which risk becoming ever more frequent in the face of climate change.

With this in mind, in 2007 Burung Indonesia (BirdLife Partner) developed the idea of Village Resource Management Agreements (VRMAs) in order to halt harmful activities to the island’s biodiversity and forests. Working alongside the 27 communities, they formed agreements on forest protection, fire prevention and water source management, the results of which are monitored regularly. This role later evolved into a broader guideline for planning and developing villages as a whole, since the agreement contains guidance for the productive and sustainable management of village resources.

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Besides conservation, Burung Indonesia also helps communities to explore economic activities that will improve local earnings without damaging natural habitats. In 2010 there were only ten small businesses in the area, but now there are more than a hundred – including livestock and fish husbandry, tree nurseries, coffee processing, a bakery and shops. 22 microfinance units serve the small businesses, giving owners the boost they need to get started. A candlenut cooperative has been set up, supplying the product to national markets.

There are still a number of challenges to be addressed, and that’s where BirdLife’s Forest Landscape Sustainability Accelerator comes in. Over the years, Burung Indonesia has suffered from a lack of capital to finance business opportunities, and to provide finance-based incentives, including from the government, for communities to preserve habitats. Conservation groups are also in need of funding for staff, training and equipment, which will enable them to achieve even more.

Through the Accelerator programme, Burung Indonesia is exploring opportunities that have not been tried before. We are already getting VRMAs integrated into the policies of local planning offices, and they also seek to expand the scale of the candlenut cooperative, allowing even more farmers to get involved. Excitingly, we will be exploring some completely new avenues, including ecotourism and ‘payment for ecosystem services’: incentives offered to farmers or landowners in exchange for preserving the vital, life-giving services that nature provides.

BirdLife’s Forest Landscape Sustainability Accelerator helps local Partners to attract long-lasting investments and explore forest-friendly business opportunities that will safeguard the whole landscape for decades to come.